The second episode of the new miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace, airing on FX now, is steeped in the lore of America’s AIDS and HIV epidemic. Most of the episode takes place in mid-90s South Beach—a place far removed from modern-day Miami, with its status as a mecca of art, real estate, and luxury living. Back then, South Beach was where folks came to die. With its thriving club scene, endless sun, and run-down Art Deco hotels, Miami offered easy, affordable living for a generation of gay men who were battling AIDS—and likely to lose.
Within this heavy-yet-hedonistic atmosphere came Gianni Versace, who along with Madonna, helped propel South Beach’s fashion world ascent. As lavishly conveyed in the series, Versace set up shop in a massive, Spanish-style ocean-front pile. He lived there for much of the decade until his murder at the entrance of the home in July 1997.
On the surface, Versace’s arrival fits nicely into Miami’s rich history of welcoming deep-pocketed arrivistes eager to make the city their own, as it’s done for celebrities from real estate mogul Henry Flagler to NBA-star Lebron James. But beyond his wealth, some have speculated that Versace was also part of Miami’s growing population of people-with-AIDS.
Author Maureen Orth claims as much in her book, Vulgar Favors—which serves as the basis for the FX series—noting not only was Versace HIV positive, but also seeking treatment for the disease in Miami. Although the claim has been refuted by Versace’s family, the show portrays the designer as both looking for an AIDS cure at a local hospital while also living large in Miami’s social and party scenes.
The show also vividly conveys both the physical and psychological toll of AIDS on the folks who battled it. Throughout episode two, Miami’s sandy-shores and azure Atlantic are strikingly contrasted with images of rail-thin men, clearly disease-stricken, lounging listlessly. In fact, one such soul—a character named Ronnie—figures prominently as a confidant of Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan. A one-time florist—who had clearly battled AIDS—Ronnie had come to Miami to die, yet was spared by the first generation of truly effective anti-HIV medications that had finally started to work during the period just before Versace’s death.
Despite the presence of so much disease and death in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, there is very little actual discussion of AIDS and HIV—and this matters. Because throughout the entire second episode—as Versace seeks treatment, as Donatella Versace tries to hide her brother’s apparent diagnosis, as the designer’s partner contends with his lover’s worsening condition—the word “AIDS” is only mentioned once: when Cunanan casually shares that he had volunteered at an AIDS organization.
Yet never does anyone actually say they have AIDS or HIV—never.
Character after character speaks of disease and sickness and treatment and dying—but no one truly claims the affliction for themself. Ronnie speaks around the disease, but fails to say its name. A nurse alludes to new therapies, but never says what they’re for. On FX’s Versace biopic, AIDS it seems, is the ultimate four-letter word.
Throughout the history of AIDS and HIV in the US, silence has been a deadly constant. President Reagan famously failed to take a major stance on AIDS until some 21,000 Americans had died from it. New York City Mayor Ed Koch was reviled by activists for his inaction around AIDS as it killed thousands in his own backyard. One of the most impactful images in the history of AIDS is artist Keith Haring’s now iconic “Silence=Death” design for the protest movement, Act-Up. This all took place decades ago, when an HIV diagnosis typically guaranteed death, as well discrimination, ostracism, and endless stigma.
So what’s FX’s excuse for their silence of today? Show creator Ryan Murphy—who’s publicly gay and celebrated for his industry inclusivity—seems to feel like he’s actually challenging the taboos around HIV with Versace. “I think it’s moving and powerful, and I don’t think there should be any shame associated with HIV,” he said of the Versace family’s disavowal of the show’s HIV claims.
But how does removing nearly every mention of AIDS and HIV from this episode combat the shame that still surrounds the disease? In a word, it doesn’t. Instead, both Versace and Murphy’s deafening silence perpetuate tired—and, yes dangerous—stereotypes about AIDS, gay men, and dying.
Some might suggest that FX could have been sued for libel had they formally declared Versace had AIDS. But, the dead cannot be slandered—and any such suit would likely have failed. Perhaps Gianni Versace S.p.A.—the official holding company that operates his fashion empire—might have sued instead, claiming that HIV tarnishes its brand? That might explain why Murphy and FX avoided explicitly naming Versace as having the condition.
But what about the rest of the episode—Ronnie, the florist and the other clearly sick and dying men who populate the show? Why not have them more forcefully speak of their condition and literally name their truth? Why are they—like the thousands of real life victims of the disease—lowering the volume to own their histories? After all, Murphy himself insists there’s no “shame” associated with HIV–why then render these men nearly voiceless props against Miami’s sunny shores?
In Versace’s day, “AIDS silence” was almost as deadly as the disease itself—as stigma and shame kept those afflicted from comfort and care. Twenty years later, HIV has become a treatable and manageable condition that no longer has to define someone’s life. But in order for this to happen, HIV had to come out of the shadows—folks can’t treat something they won’t admit they have.
FX’s Murphy insists that AIDS and HIV must no longer exist in shame—and with seven more episodes of Versace still to air, his work might actually live up to this bombast. But his sorry handling of the disease on the show so far only confirms that AIDS silence still rings loudly.